Image: “Killed Negatives: After Walker Evans,” by Lisa Oppenheim, 2007-2009.
Liz Cettina: How did you begin writing ‘Dreams of War’?
Doc Polk: I was actually trying not to write about the military when I first came to Wesleyan. I wanted to put that behind me and write about these other ideas I had, but every time I started writing, it kept turning towards the military. Eventually I said, ‘Okay, well, maybe if I just write it once, get it out of my system, then I can move on to something else.’ So I wrote it once, tried to move on to something else, and it fell flat. Even now, when I try to write about other things, the military stuff just comes out. I figure I’ve got to get everything out before I can move on to something else.
Emma Raddatz: What purpose did writing ‘Dreams of War’ have for you?
D: Writing is definitely an outlet for me. The way I think is jumbled and unorganized so I write to process and organize what I’m thinking. My intention when I started writing the piece was to process some of this stuff. I had intended to be less obvious about it, to kind of hide things underneath, with imagery or poetry. A lot of the stuff I wrote in that story and most stories since then, are things I’ve never told anyone, even a therapist. So it’s kind of strange having it out there because it’s not just me turning it in to a class of writers or for an award. This is out there for Joe and Jack and Francine to read and have opinions about.
L: How did you feel about submitting the piece for an award?
D: I edited the piece a lot during Professor Chase’s class but it was largely unedited when I submitted it for the award so I didn’t expect much. I just wanted feedback from somebody. I do that a lot. I’ll do something just to gain experience. For example, I audition for plays that I know I won’t be cast in just because I want feedback on how to audition better.
E: What was the revision process like for this piece?
D: We read a piece by César Aira called “Resumes,” and he wrote these scenes, some true and some not true. Our assignment was to write three scenes in the same way. I chose to write about World War II, Vietnam, and one of my actual firefights. I wrote the same sort of information in three different scenes. From there, I revised that into a longer piece. Then I turned it in, got feedback from my professor and my class, and edited from there.
L: Was there one major response to your piece?
D: No one seemed to get my first piece. They didn’t understand that two of the scenes were set in WWII and Vietnam. I never specifically mentioned Vietnam or the Germans, I just expected people to catch on because of all the movies and literature about these wars. But they didn’t. It wasn’t clear so they were like, ‘I don’t understand why sometimes he’s here and sometimes he’s there.’ I had to tell them it was a different scene. Finding out what’s obvious and what’s not to the reader is now very important in my revision process.
E: How did the class respond to your piece in general?
D: I kind of felt like, when I turned my piece in, I was sneaking it under the door. I didn’t think anyone would really read it for some reason. I was surprised when everyone responded well. Actually I shouldn’t be surprised because the students at Wesleyan are really good. This is the most open I’ve ever been with anyone, talking with students here. That’s what gave me the confidence to write this piece to begin with, knowing they’d respond well. But still, once you put something like this in print it’s open to interpretation, so I eased into the writing of this piece. It felt safer to put my experience into the three scenes when people didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t until the second or third revision. I remember a few people being shocked to find that the Afghanistan scene was actually true.
L: How did you categorize your piece to the class—fiction, non-fiction?
D: It was the same way I presented it to you guys—‘Autobiographical Creative Non-fiction.’ It gives me plausible deniability, if I need it. The good thing is that writers aren’t allowed to talk during their workshops so I don’t get to say, ‘Hey, this actually happened!’ Which I like better because it’s hard to critique when the story is true because you think, ‘Oh, maybe it’s going to hurt or offend them if I say this or that.’ So when the class edited it, they were more fearless than they would have been if they’d known it was something that actually happened.
E: Did you know what conclusion you would come to in the piece when you started writing?
D: Not at all. I had no idea certain things would make it in until I started typing, and it was almost like, ‘Why am I doing this? How is this happening?’ I convinced myself, again, that no one would read it.
E: Can you speak to the chronology of this piece?
D: I like things that are circular. I like stories that start in one place and end up in the same place. I realize there’s not much progression in that. People ask, ‘Where’s your beginning? Where’s your end?’ But I like things to come back on themselves. That’s how I feel my life goes. So I started off with a dream, and it’s a recurring dream that I actually have but not in that context necessarily. The reason my piece is creative non-fiction is because I compressed a lot of my experiences. Like my buddy dying, that happened, but in the story the experience is actually all of my friends and soldiers that have died put into one character. The first scene is probably the best example of that. Also, starting off with a dream evoked the fog of war. It also led seamlessly into the scene with the psychologist. I’ve worked with many psychologists, and most of them are like the one I wrote in so the one in the story is a compilation of the ones I’ve worked with. So the dream led into reality which led back into a pseudo-dream with the bar scene which led into the reality of leaving home which led back into a sort of dream state at the cemetery, then back into reality, etc. It goes back and forth and then comes back on itself. I think that’s better than just listing the events like: this happened, then that, then this.
L: Does that chronological structure relate to your content? What’s different when you come back to the beginning of the circle?
D: Each scene is a circular motion. There’s the whole, ‘Dream, reality, dream, reality,’ of the story itself, but each scene ends where it started as well. Even though he has more experiences, he doesn’t really move on. Things change but he’s stuck in the same place, reliving the same life in different scenes. He doesn’t really progress. He just ends up in the same place every time.
E: What other things have you tried to write about?
D: So I wrote this story that I thought was great. And my professor said it was too sentimental. In the nicest way possible on the top of the page, he basically wrote, ‘I didn’t like this at all.’ The story was about an old guy living all by himself, and it seems like he’s talking to people but really he’s talking to empty picture frames, stock photos. But you don’t find that out until the end of the piece. You think he’s interacting with his family, and then you find out he never had a family. He just became that old guy who retired on his own talking to himself. Then things become real, and he dies by himself. Really, it’s an echo of how I feel about my life in a depressing way. And still everyone said, ‘It’s so sentimental!’ And I was like, ‘Fine! I’ll make it like a Southern Gothic.’
E: Who are your favorite writers?
D: I like Hemingway, now. And the reason I like him is because pre-concussion and post-concussion my writing is very different. It was very prose-y before, long sentences, romantic. Now my writing is staccato, definitely Hemingway-esque. So I like Hemingway now, a lot of his stuff has begun to make more sense. I read biographies about him, and I relate to his later life. I like Hemingway’s cohorts too, his fellow ex-patriots, but I like Hemingway the best.
E: Are you reading anything right now?
D: James Joyce. I don’t like James Joyce, but I’m reading James Joyce. I’m reading it for a play. I’m also reading essays about structure, looking for techniques to apply to my short stories.
L: What do you intend to major in?
D: I’m going to try to double major in Theater and English.
E: What play are you in right now?
D: ‘Joan,’ directed by Sophie Rose Somoroff and written by David Caruso. It’s an original. I have what I consider six parts, but really I only have three. I like to count all of my non-speaking roles. For example, there’s this scene where I’m a tattoo artist, and my guy doesn’t say anything but his name is Marcus. I wrote a backstory for him. He loves to draw and make really artistic tattoos, but it doesn’t pay the bills so he doesn’t have a shop. As a result, he has to do it out of his house. So people come in wanting really basic or stupid tattoos, and he’s just not into it. But it’s how he pays the bills so he puts up with it.
E: When did you begin writing?
D: When I was in first grade. I wrote in these journals, I’m glad I still have them. The teacher would give us a prompt, not unlike college, and you would write a little. Back then I thought the longer the writing, the better. So by the end I would repeat my sentences over and over. I’d write, ‘I like grapes. Do you like grapes? I like grapes. Do you like grapes? Because I like grapes,’ for like a page. And I’d say, ‘Look how long this is!’ Then in second grade, my mom gave me a journal, and I started writing about the Old West where insects were the main characters. I’ve always been enamored with stories. On my first career day, I came in with a lab coat and a pen and said, ‘I’m going to be a veterinarian and a writer.’ Then I found out what you had to do as a veterinarian so I said, ‘Okay, well, I’ll just be a writer.’
L: Where are you from?
D: All over the place. It’s kind of a joke within my posse because I always give a different answer. I was born in Texas, moved to Louisiana, lived in Iowa, Wyoming, Colorado, then I was stationed in North Carolina. I’d traveled the world enough before the military that I needed to get a new passport so I’ve just kind of been everywhere.
E: Why did you choose Wesleyan?
D: I wanted to go to Wesleyan before I found out about the posse program because I wanted to go to an elite school, not because I’m a genius (I’m quickly finding out that I am not) but because the schools I went to before just weren’t challenging. I did no work whatsoever. I could write essays 30 minutes before class and do well. I came here with a 4.0, but I feel that is more a reflection of comparison than what my work really deserves. I wanted to go somewhere that challenged me. And Wesleyan certainly does that, there’s so much more required of you.
L: What’s the relationship like between your writing and your acting?
D: The two are very similar. Writing is therapeutic, and the same is true for acting. I have all these emotions with no place to put them. When I’m acting, I can put some of my emotions into a character which helps bring them to life. So it’s not just me being angry, it’s the character being angry. Psychologically, acting has helped a lot. For example, I’ve had this eye twitch for a while but it’s starting to go away, and it’s because of writing and acting.
E: What are you writing now?
D: I want to compile a bunch of my pieces in a book. People want the canon written for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars so they’re calling people in to write books. I think I’m going to throw in my lot for that, and we’ll see how it goes.